Indonesia — Lake Sentarum National Park, frequently called the heart of Borneo, is the largest wetland ecosystem in Asia, covering 132,000 hectares of swamp and marsh. The park’s existence is so vital that the zone has helda place on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance since 1994. The writer was invited by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) to visit the area.
Located in West Kalimantan’s Kapuas Hulu regency, the park is facing a gloomy future, threatened by a plan to permit oil palm plantations, water-greedy and homogeneous, to develop on its perimeter. The plan is now sitting on Regent Abang Tambul Husin’s desk.
The giant sponge serves many purposes. It retains water coming down the Kapuas River during the rainy season, then supplies that water to the area in the dry season, preventing aridity, and serves as West Kalimantan’s major source of freshwater fish.
Although people find little direct use for wetlands — unnavigable, swampy, and unfit for cultivating standards food crops — this terrain contributes a high degree of biodiversity of land and water biota. Wetlands also serve as a breeding ground for many species significant to humans. People who rely on fishing and fish farms for their livelihoods living near the park are concerned about the proposal to open up oil palm estates near the preserve.
Hari Sudirman, a resident of Sungai Lalau village in Suhait district, said he feared it could put an end to his 15-year-old fish breeding business.now we have problems regulating our water needs,” he said. He said he was aware the regent had not yet issued licenses for the project, which could turn over 18,000 hectares in Suhait district. Some of the 18 companies in the plan, however, have been bold enough to already start reclaiming land, he said.
Premature development has also been observed in nearby Semitau district, Kapuas Hulu regency. A Selimbau community leader, Walidad, said he had been asked to attend a stakeholder meeting with residents, Selimbau district head Aband Sudarmo and employees of the oil-palm company. refused to put my signature because I disagree with the plan,” he said. “It’ll spoil the natural conditions and threaten the rare orchids near the Selimbau royal cemetery.”
Aband confirmed some 3,000 hectares in his district could host the new project. He said he was unaware of the size of the total area affected by the project across the regency and was only carrying out the regent’s instructions to mediate between the company and residents.
“The outcome here depends on the residents,” he said.
The national park’s administrative head, Himawan Gunadi, said he had received letters from community groups opposing the oil palm plantations. He also said he would examine a map of the area affected by this plan, adding the park should be located far from any planned plantations, particularly as oil palm trees are water-consuming plants that should not be grown around the park.
“Since oil palm plantations will only harm theenvironment, I hope the plan will not be implemented and be further reviewed,” Himawan said.
An ecologist from CIFOR, Elizabeth Linda Yuliani, who has been conducting research in the park for four years, said physical changes on the park’s perimeter — its contours, topography and spatial plan — could alter Lake Sentarum’s role in the water cycle. She warned such changes might reduce the rate of water flow, causing more mud to accumulate, and in turn lead to declines in the fish population.
Monocultural plantations and intensive agriculture practices rely on pesticides and chemical fertilizer, which will also detract from the lake’s water quality.
“Based on our research, pesticides could harm at least 95 fish species in Lake Sentarum and then accumulate in the human population through water and fish consumption,” Linda said. Changes to the water system, especially sedimentation and reduced water flow, could lead to the extinction of 89 indigenous fish species.
The lake hosts 200 species of high economic value, including the super-red arowana (dragon fish) — a freshwater species which lives in black-water rivers, slow-moving waters that flow through forested swamp, peatland and marsh. The water appears black because of the underlying peat, but it is clear and relatively free of sediment.
If oil palm estates are opened around the park, 965.2 million hectares of peatland and 128 million tons of peat might be affected, a low estimate based on the regency’s estate location map. Peatland provides efficient carbon reserves in addition to its role in mitigating the rate of water flow. Despite its role, peatland appears unproductive. Industrial developers see advantages to making peatland more productive by harvesting the peat and converting it to cropland.
“The local forestry office has announced that eight of the 18 locations planned for oil palm estates have been granted survey permits,” Linda said. She warned the Rp 34.7 billion annually earned by the community through fishing would be lost if the park’s surroundings are turned into single-crop plantations which rely on intensive farming practices.
A similar fate could also affect arowana breeders, who currently earn collectively between Rp 70 billion and Rp 145 billion annually.
“Any monocultural plantation undertaking will change the natural setting, while oil palm and acacia trees are among the plants that cause the greatest water exhaustion.”